Remembering Bowie: 40 Songs
David Bowie died on this date last year. Here are 40 songs for remembering him today. This isn’t a best-of list. Just 40 tunes from the man who fell onto our plane so unexpectedly and whose departure was just as amazing as his arrival.
40. Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud (1969, B-side of “Space Oddity” single)
This narrative about an uncorrupted youth and the evil village elders who condemned him sounds like it was lifted from a European fairy tale. However, “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” actually has its inspiration from Bowie’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism. In the late 1960s, Bowie wrote a short play called “Jet-sun and the Eagle” dramatizing a Tibetan boy’s struggle with Chinese Communist authorities. Some of that storyline made its way into this song. The lyrics, a mix of naturalistic detail and vague images, somehow work. The music itself goes through several classical-style movements, lavishly instrumented on the orchestral version that appeared on the album Space Oddity. But the simple, all-strings version works better overall. The strange tale, which has qualities of myth, sounds more appropriate in the hands of a singer-songwriter, with no tympani or brass sections to distract the listener.
39. Amsterdam (1970, BBC studio recording)
The Belgian singer Jacques Brel, whose lyrics and live performances were both raw and strangely brutal, was a formative influence for Bowie. The American-born British singer Scott Walker covered this Brel song before Bowie, but it’s Bowie’s version that came to be the English-language standard. The music gradually ascends in pitch and intensity as its story of drunken sailors and forlorn prostitutes unfolds. Theatre was always close to Bowie’s mind and heart, and it shows here.
38. The Width of a Circle (1970, from the album “The Man Who Sold the World”)
If “Hunky Dory” was Bowie’s first great album, “The Man Who Sold the World” was his first extremely good album. It’s a cohesive work as a whole, as opposed to the semi-random collections of songs on Bowie’s first two LPs. And with all due respect to “Low,” “Heroes,” and “Blackstar,” it’s arguably Bowie’s weirdest record. The ambience is one of fantasy and danger. The lyrics on this opening track are J.R.R. Tolkien meets the infamous brown acid from Woodstock. This song also heralds the arrival of the singularly gifted Mick Ronson as a force in Bowie’s music. His guitar work was electrified iron, both here and elsewhere.
37. All the Madmen (1970, from the album “The Man Who Sold the World”)
A demented keyboard on this song’s lofty chorus accentuates Ronson’s heavy-handed chords and Bowie’s dramatic vocal. The murky meaning of this song reportedly has its origins in Bowie’s relationship with his brother, who suffered from mental illness.
36. Changes (1971, from the album “Hunky Dory”)
Classic-rock radio did its best to ruin a handful of Bowie songs through endless overplaying, and this is one of them. But for whatever reason, this tune has held up better for me than the other cuts bludgeoned to death on FM airwaves in the 1980s. It’s a perfect song, complex and simple, with wisdom. The young Bowie seems to have thought a lot about the future, both the world’s and his own.
35. Oh! You Pretty Things (1971, from the album “Hunky Dory”)
After years of writing songs on the guitar, Bowie wrote the songs for the "Hunky Dory" album on the piano. This was by chance rather than design – some housemates had moved out and Bowie turned their old bedroom into a work room, with little besides an old piano and natural light. “Oh! You Pretty Things” weaves musings about impending apocalypse with a chorus straight out of the British music-hall tradition. The chords in the strange, meandering verses shift rapidly, along with the pace. It’s a sparse but sophisticated composition that presents a more thoughtful treatment of dystopia than Bowie would present a few years later. Is this cannabis Bowie, as opposed to cocaine Bowie? Perhaps.
34. Eight Line Poem (1971, from the album “Hunky Dory”)
There’s a dreamlike quality to “Hunky Dory,” an album greater than the sum of its parts. A few of the songs are great, a few are merely good, but the overall effect of the record is the creation of a particular mood, contemplative and tender. It’s hard to say what “Eight Line Poem” is about, but it seems to happen in the placid cloister of a lover’s apartment. “Tactful cactus by your window surveys the prairie of your room” and “Clara puts her head between her paws” sound like things someone would observe while awake but not yet out of bed. There’s no verse, no chorus, just a progression that leaves the listener in the same daydreaming state as the singer.
33. Life on Mars? (1971, from the album “Hunky Dory”)
The lyrics begin with a sensitive girl’s reaction to cinematic clichés and get more vague as the song goes on. The song’s words seem to have something to do with the juxtaposition of the human spirit against the noise of postmodernity. But it’s the melody, perhaps the most beautiful one in Bowie’s vast catalog, that pulls the heartstrings. The cascading strings and final chord at the end, followed by a piano wandering off into the ether, might be one of the best song conclusions in popular music.
32. Queen Bitch (1971, from the album “Hunky Dory”)
This is Bowie’s Velvet Underground song, as he admits unambiguously on the album’s back cover. And of course he does a perfect job of creating an English version of Lou Reed’s sexually ambiguous, swinging-from-a-fire-escape, urban urchins. All the arty musings on “Hunky Dory” needed a straight-ahead rocker to balance out the bill, and this does just that.
31. Five Years (1972, from the album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”)
We’ve all had that moment, when we hear news so horrible that reality warps and our minds turn inside-out. It can’t be real. But it is. The television newscaster is so disturbed by what he has to read that his face is wet with tears. Loss and the fragility of life. This is the bleak, doomed world into which Ziggy will descend.
30. Starman (1972, from the album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”)
American youths, now grown old, remember the first time they saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. If there’s a British equivalent, it must be when Bowie and his band performed (not lip-synced) “Starman” on Top of the Pops. Here was something fantastic, something magic, a promise of something unlike what has gone before. One can just see the teenagers fixated on the screen while their parents shifted uncomfortably in their seats in response to Bowie’s arm around Mick Ronson. Teatime would never be the same.
29. Watch That Man (1973, from the album “Aladdin Sane”)
There was a lot of pressure on the first track of Aladdin Sane, what with that album following “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” But Bowie doesn’t miss a beat, with a fire-‘em-up number every bit as charged as Ziggy’s “Hang On to Yourself.” Bowie didn’t retire the Ziggy persona and band until after the release of “Aladdin Sane,” and this song and others from the album played prominently on what would be Ziggy’s farewell tour.
28. Drive-In Saturday (1973, from the album “Aladdin Sane”)
When it came to 1950s music, Bowie was more of a fan of Little Richard and Chuck Berry than doo-wop. But that didn’t stop him from imagining a post-apocalyptic soda shop and creating this song. Apparently, technology-addled humanity has forgotten how to handle even the most basic aspects of relating physically, and must look to 20th-century movies as guideposts for getting the groove back. Ronson’s booming chords are the cherry on top of the whipped cream.
27. Time (1973, from the album “Aladdin Sane”)
Cryptic lyrics, archly delivered, “Time” mixes rock and 1930s Berlin cabaret, with tinkling and sweeping piano keystrokes offering evidence that Bowie was familiar with Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht long before he took up residence in Berlin. Ronson is allowed to wail during the song’s climax, with marvelous effect. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEWhOSmrj6Y
26. Diamond Dogs (1974, from the album “Diamond Dogs”)
Compared to “Aladdin Sane” and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” “Diamond Dogs” is kind of a mess. The musical genres seem to compete rather than mix. The album was first conceived as a musical telling of George Orwell’s “1984,” but the writer’s widow balked at the concept. Too bad. Bowie ended up mixing a little of Orwell’s dystopia with his own nightmares. Halloween Jack, as a character, isn’t quite as memorable or lovable as Ziggy, but like the necrotic future-scape he inhabits, he’s meant to be a beautiful disaster.
25. Young Americans (1975, from the album “Young Americans”)
Bowie was obsessed with the Philly soul sound of the mid 1970s, but casual observers might be surprised to learn that he also was concurrently fascinated with this guy from just a few miles up the New Jersey Turnpike, Bruce Springsteen. Bowie even covered “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” during his cocaine-disco period. It sounds like you think it would sound. Bowie did much better in this song, when he presented a Springsteenian story of scrappy young lovers against a backdrop of fantastically danceable (for those who dance) music.
24. Can You Hear Me (1975, from the album “Young Americans”)
Chances are your doctor would not prescribe a diet of cocaine, milk and peppers for improved health, but that’s what Bowie supposedly lived on during the Gerald Ford administration. Predictably, it wasn’t his best time, musically. But comparing this period unfavorably to the Ziggy era misses that fact that even B-list Bowie was still excellent music. At first glance, this song is your basic 1970s slow jam, with gliding strings, riffing saxophones and soulful background singers. But the lyrics seem to show coke-Bowie surfacing for a moment of clarity. The words present a solipsistic hedonist trying to convince an on-again, off-again lover that tonight, he really is present in the moment, offering all he has to give. Somewhere out there on the intertubes, there’s a wonderful but very NSFW video of this one set to scenes of Bowie and Candy Clark from the 1976 movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
23. Word on a Wing (1976, from the album “Station to Station”)
Here, along that same theme, Bowie the lost soul is having a sober moment and is reaching out. But in this song, he’s talking not to a one-night stand, but to God. And rather than begging for forgiveness, or pleading for help, he’s offering his love, and his desire “to fit among the scheme of things.” Not bad for a guy whose weekly grocery shopping fits into one bag(gie). And as for the music itself? Probably the most masterful and gorgeous since the Ziggy period.
22. Wild is the Wind (1976, from the album “Station to Station”)
Bowie takes this American movie tune from the 1950s and makes it his own, and ours. This song also showcases how much Bowie’s vocal skills had developed from the years when he was a hippie kid struggling to hold the high notes.
21. Sound and Vision (1977, from the album “Low”)
So the story is well known, perhaps even worn-out. Bowie decides to clean up, which would involve living almost anywhere but his current home of Los Angeles. After a stay in France, Bowie settles in Berlin. “Low,” the first album of the unofficial “Berlin trilogy” that also includes “Heroes” and “Lodger,” includes some music that was meant for the movie “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (legal complexities prevented the film from having a Bowie soundtrack). The Thin White Duke character from this period of Bowie’s career has an austere, Baltic vibe, but on this song, Bowie’s having great fun.
20. Be My Wife (1977, from the album “Low”)
Is Bowie singing to anyone in particular? Or did he realize one day that he was alone and not getting any younger? The piano and synthesizers complement one another perfectly on this upbeat ode to not-quite-middle-aged longing.
19. A New Career in a New Town (1977, from the album “Low”)
Bowie produced lots of instrumentals during this period, and some of them tend to sprawl or drone. But this short tune bounces down the sidewalk like a man who’s feeling lucky. Surely Bowie felt pretty good about escaping from his drug-induced hell with his life and sanity.
18. Heroes (1977, from the album “Heroes”)
This song tops many all-time Bowie favorite lists, and well it should. It’s high art in every sense. And it doesn’t look like the theme of lovers taking refuge from a world beset by oppression and militarism will be getting old any time soon. For a twist, look for “Helden,” Bowie’s German-language version.
17. Sons of the Silent Age (1977, from the album “Heroes”)
What exactly is this song about? Not sure, but the verses are hypnotic as plainsong, the chorus soars as only Bowie choruses can soar, so this jewel can remain an enigma.
16. Move On (1979, from the album “Lodger”)
Just because “Lodger” isn’t as genius-saturated as “Low” or “Heroes” doesn’t mean that it’s a weak album. It’s just not quite as brilliant as the previous two. Think of “Diamond Dogs” as compared to “Aladdin Sane” and “Ziggy.” This upbeat, galloping number shows Bowie at his most restless. He’s ready to retire the Thin White Duke and travel to someplace new.
15. Ashes to Ashes (1980, from the album “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Major Tom is exhumed and laid to rest again in this song that could serve as an epitaph for the 1970s and Bowie’s own role during that chaotic decade. Any doubt that Bowie could continue to hold his own creatively with the younger New Wave artists of the time was also shot into space with this album.
14. Teenage Wildlife (1980, from the album “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
“How come you only want tomorrow and its promise of something hard to do?” Good question. Enjoy it while you can, kids. You might get wiser (hopefully!), but you might never look this good or feel this good again. And everybody else? Take it easy on that teenage wildlife. Whoever’s fault all of this is, it’s not theirs.
13. Remembering Marie A. (1982, from the EP “David Bowie in Bertholt Brecht’s Baal”)
Bowie’s leading role in BBC’s television adaptation of Bertholt Brecht’s “Baal” didn’t get quite as much attention or praise as perhaps it should have. But fans still have the five-track disc as a souvenir of this venture. One imagines that Bowie and Brecht would have enjoyed a mug of dunkel and one another’s company.
12. Modern Love (1983, from the album “Let’s Dance”)
What happened to Bowie? Just a few years ago, he was wearing an Italian clown outfit and being really weird, even for Bowie. Now he’s all normal, dressed like he’s about to grab a few mozzarella sticks at TGI Friday’s before hitting a popular nightclub. Mid-1980s Bowie tested the loyalty of his more countercultural fans, but in this song, he seems to be winking at it all.
11. Absolute Beginners (1986, single)
Maybe someday, there’ll be a well-done movie version of Colin MacInnes’ “Absolute Beginners,” a sharp novel about immigration and race relations in 1950s England. Because the 1986 musical film was, as the Brits say, “naff.” The only good thing about it was Bowie’s song.
10. Bus Stop (1989, from the album “Tin Machine”)
Not The Hollies’ song! After some years in the wilderness, Bowie forced himself into a better creative position with the creation of the band Tin Machine. The experiment of having Bowie as just one of the guys in a rock group predictably didn’t last long, but it was a necessary step. You can pick up some Pixies influence in Tin Machine, but this two-minute tune is a bit Ramones-like. The youth scene in London at the end of the 1980s was explosive, as acid house stepped up to replace new wave, and this song captures the energy of that time.
9. Jump (They Say) (1993, from the album “Black Tie White Noise”)
Another song about Bowie’s brother, and just as hard to figure out as the one written two decades earlier. The “Black Tie White Noise” album showed Bowie’s audience that, while he might not have another Ziggy Stardust up his sleeve, post-Tin Machine Bowie would not return to the embarrassing ways of “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down.”
8. Thursday’s Child (1999, from the album “Hours”)
“All of my life I've tried so hard/Doing my best with what I had/Nothing much happened all the same.” It seems difficult to imagine those words coming from Bowie, but I think many of us can relate.
7. Seven (1999, from the album “Hours”)
Seven is a quintessential Bowie song in many ways – one being that both the acoustic and full-band versions are so good, it’s hard to say which (if either) is better.
6. Conversation Piece (2001, from the unofficial album “Toy”)
This composition didn’t quite work in 1969, when it was first released as a B-side and then appeared on “Space Oddity.” The narrator is a shabby intellectual who wanders his daily world in loneliness, apart from the flow of life. A pretty song, but a little syrupy and not entirely convincing coming from the young, cosmic-hippie version of Bowie. But the 2001 version, recorded for the officially unreleased album “Toy,” is more powerful. Bowie’s authoritative baritone, dominant percussion and understated instrumentation did wonders for a song that needed a version that was manly rather than boyish. The result is a bittersweet picture of solitude worthy of an early modernist European novel.
6. Slip Away (2002, from the album “Heathen”)
Dallas-Fort Worth had Mr. Peppermint, Chicago had Ray Rayner, and New Jersey had Uncle Floyd as its 1970s children’s television impresario. Like so many of Bowie’s songs, this one addresses the passing of time and uses the TV show as a starting point. The overall feel of the song, though, is one of a world without time, where identity defeats the loss of years and the failing of the flesh.
5. Slow Burn (2002, from the album “Heathen”)
A naturalized New Yorker in his later years, Bowie insisted that he didn’t write any song as a specific response to 9/11, and that many of the tunes listeners speculated had been such were actually written before the disaster. In any case, this song captures the spirit of 2002.
4. Dirty Boys (2013, from the album “The Next Day”)
Health concerns slowed Bowie down in the last decade of his life, but after a break following a heart attack suffered on stage in 2004, he returned with the unexpectedly compelling “The Next Day.” On “Dirty Boys,” Bowie showed that he could still crank out something sexy.
3. Where Are We Now? (2013, from the album “The Next Day”)
Bowie revisits the 21st-century version of Berlin and contrasts it to the one from his own sojourn there. Even if you’re not a particular fan of Germany or Berlin, the video is worth a look.
2. Lazarus (2016, from the album “Blackstar”)
“Look up here, man, I'm in danger/I've got nothing left to lose/I'm so high it makes my brain whirl/Dropped my cell phone down below/Ain't that just like me?” Most listeners knew that Bowie was talking about being mortal, but very few knew that he was talking about dying.
1. Blackstar (2016, from the album “Blackstar”)
The “Blackstar” album is not rock, it’s just music of no particular genre. And like contemporary classical or some jazz, it requires a listen or two. It’s not sing-along stuff. But how fitting that Bowie left us this strange puzzle as a parting gift. Of course it’s all a bit enigmatic. Bowie knew long ago that the most powerful art is the kind where the artist draws a picture and we color in the empty spaces ourselves.